AAW Black Amp impressions thread

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Erroneous, Feb 2, 2021.

  1. Phantaminum

    Phantaminum Friend

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    Austin Audio Work Black Amp Review:

    Chain:
    Pi2AES --> Bifrost 2/Matrix Sabre Pro (XLR) --> Black Amp
    Amps: Elekit TU-8600s, SW51+, Jotunheim 2
    Headphones: ZMF VO/Auteur, HD650, Focal Elex, Verum One

    Amp build:
    Train of thought that follows is all subjective. What I do wish for would be that the case was made of sturdier materials. The Black Amp has a WW2 era control box charm to it but the outside case looks like it can easily be scratched. The demo build may be different than what's offered in production. Different manufacturers have different costs/machines but at $1500 I'd expect something along the lines of the metal casing or to feel more premium. As a comparison the SW51+ which is $350+ comes in a hefty metal case. The case doesn't do the amp justice with the great sound coming out of it.

    Sound: I was surprised at how tubey sounding the amp is. When paired up with the Bifrost 2, it brought back memories of the Glenn OTL. The Black Amp has more characteristics of a tube amp than either the SW51+ and the even the ZMF Pendant with the default tubes. While the SW51+ and the Pendant lean more towards the SS sound (more incisive, livelier) the Black Amp goes a bit more the opposite way. It has a very open sound stage, instruments never feel like they're squished together and instead have plenty of space between each other. There is no compression here compared to other amps and layering is also fantastic. It displays a non-fatiguing sound that tube amps excel at without smothering details. It retains enough treble sparkle but plays the tube act where it's not digital sounding or sharp. I mean it sounds analog but in a good way. The sound stage is wider and slightly deeper than either the SW51+ and Jotunheim 2. Notes have some nice weight to it and also display a 3D rounded effect that again, tube amps excel at. Notes also are taller/larger compared to amps like SW51+ and Jotunheim 2.

    Really, this is a tube amp at heart but without most of the drawbacks of tube amp. I have no complaints about the amps PRaT. It never felt slow or off tempo. The amp sound stage is what I consider neutral. It's not pushed forward or back. I think the few nitpicks that I can complain about is how solid the images are and slam. The outside of images are slightly more nebulous than what you would get on any of the amps I'm comparing it to and slam can depend on the headphone. The Verite Open has great slam with this amp but the Auteur's slam is more muted than say with it paired to a Pendant. Also, some headphones may not play not with the Z-out pot in the back. As much as I wanted to really like Elex with the setting on the lowest-Z, it always felt too thick.

    Pairings / Synergy / Comparisons:

    DACS

    Bifrost 2:
    This is the pairing if you want meatier weight behind notes and a 3D image of instruments. It's not the best for thicker sounding headphones but I enjoyed it with all of my high ohm headphones. The Auteurs with this pairing put a big smile on my face.

    Matrix Sabre Pro: This is the pairing you want to go with (DS DAC) if you're looking for a more livelier, incisive sound. It does great to bring it back to neutral and not sound as warm. Transients are sharper but at the sacrifice of sound stage width. Notes are also flatter.

    Amps:

    Elekit TU-8600s:
    The Elekit build that I have is around $3000+ give or take. The Black Amp gets close to the sound of the this amp except the Elekit resolves instruments better, the sound stage stage is wider and deeper. Reverbs, small spatial queues, and microdynamics were hard to distinguish between both amps. There's more slam with the TU-8600s and the amp is slightly more incisive. I do enjoy the mids more with both ZMF headphones from the TU-8600s than with the Black Amp. Versatility goes to the TU-8600 as it doubles a headphone/speaker amp. You can also go out from the speaker taps to provide more current to harder to drive headphones. One thing to note is that my particular amp does not like to have a preamp (Sys+) with the PC being the source. It picks up the video card noise, spool up and down of the fan, and buzzing in the background. This doesn't happen with the Black Amp.

    SW51+: The Black Amp is a much tubier sounding amp than the SW51+. It has a bigger, open, and deeper sound stage. SW51+ is more incisive and livelier than the Black Amp. Images are taller on the Black Amp, resolves better, and, does better at layering. I enjoyed the Auteurs and Verite Open more out of Black Amp than the SW51+. The Focal Elex is sticking to the SW51+ as I didn't like how thick it sounded with either DAC.

    Jotunheim 2: So I think the Black Amp is what would of loved the Jotunheim 2 to sound like. The Jot 2 slightly out resolves it. Also, the power to drive Orthos may be a deal breaker compared to the Black Amp. The Verum One ran "ok" on the Black Amp but it sounded much better out of the Jot 2. Again, the Black Amp beats the lower priced amps in depth and width. I think if you're running high-z headphones then really consider the Black Amp for the price. If you run everything in between then the Jotunheim 2 will be the better all rounder.

    Headphones

    Verite Open:
    I enjoyed the synergy between the Black Amp and this headphone. At first it was hard to distinguish between the TU-8600s and the Black Amp. After critically listening the slam was the first give away, the instrument resolve was the second give away, and sound stage depth was the last give away. Really, I could swing to either as they both sound great with each other. For all the other amps I'd pick the Black Amp hands down. The pairing with the Matrix Sabre Pro was great with this headphone, and the punchiness of this headphone works well with the Black Amp.

    Auteur: The Black Amp fed by the Bifrost 2 with the Auteurs by far was one of my favorite pairings. The timbre of instruments, the open nature of the amp, with the thickness of instruments reminded me of the Glenn OTL. I caught myself going back to this pairing and by the end of the loaner. The Jotunheim 2 does well to bring it back to neutral but there was a more emotional connection with the Black Amp. You just want to sit back, grab some whiskey, and listen to tunes. I listened to this pairing exclusive on the last day of the loaner before packing it up and sending it back.

    Elex: I enjoyed how the amp made his headphone non-fatiguing but thought it was too thick in the end. I very much enjoyed this out of either the SW51+ or the Jotunheim 2. The amp did create the sense of out of head experience compared to either amp. It added more width and depth than either amp could.

    Verum One: Stick with a solid state amp like the Jotunheim 2.

    Conclusion: Yeah I really liked this amp and was bummed when it left. I think it kills in sound in it's price category if you're looking for a tube sounding amp without having to deal with tubes. It works really well with higher-z headphones, it's ok with planars, and can be too thick sounding with lower-z dynamics cans. If they can improve the case and the slam it would be an even better proposition.
     
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  2. BarryT

    BarryT MOT: Austin Audio Works

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    Thank you for your observations and impressions. It is my great pleasure that you liked it for it is the art that I do.

    I would like to touch on the case issue as it was a sticking point mentioned a couple of times.

    Many think it is plastic, not so. It is 1/10 inch die cast aluminum body, the only seam is around the bottom and it has a lip RF sealing the unit. It has a black power coat finished done by a really good custom motorcycle tank coater (I figured he would be good, if he screws up his customer will not only yell at him but probably kick his butt too, botch a biker's tank and you are in deep feces). Production models (now in production) have 3 layers of high quality carnauba automobile wax, each dried for 2 days before buffing, comes with white cotton gloves so you don't level finger prints. The unit you have is over 2 year old, been shipped over 20 times for a lot for listening.

    I believe there are three art needs to make this whole product, the case, the circuits, the sound. These little critters are my art so I try to cover the details. Sometime when you see a production unit you may actually like it. But this odyssey for the unit was about the sound, I sent a beat up one because I expected it to get kicked around, 18 people are in the tour.

    Again thanks, I am joyed that you approve of the sound.

    Barry
     
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  3. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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    Black Amp pics from Barry with commentary:

    This is an image of the basic amplifier block, all 4 amps and in the middle the control and safety system. Am told it resembles a Tie Fighter without the ball in the middle.
    black amp 1.JPG


    The bowing is due to the flexibility of the jumper cables connecting the two sections.
    black amp 2.JPG

    .
     

    Attached Files:

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    Last edited: Mar 21, 2021
  4. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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    The end units containing 20 output transistors per channel (2 channels on one board) that press against the inside of the box for heat transfer to the outside world
    black amp 4.JPG

    A top view of the inside of the AMP on tour (about 1..5 years old) inside is cleaner now.

    There are 54 transistors per channel for a total of 216 in the unit.
    black amp 3.JPG
     
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  5. BarryT

    BarryT MOT: Austin Audio Works

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    I recently took the Black AMP that is on tour and lowered the output impedance. This was based on some remarks made about low-end level weakness on some headphones. I would like to explain the thinking about this change.

    In a nutshell, it is about damping. But, as is with most audio issues, this is not just a simple number that I changed.

    There are two kinds of damping with one definition. Considerable confusion and important subtitles in performance exist due to making one definition fit multiple effects.

    There is active damping and passive damping and they have profoundly different results.

    In my years of designing feedback based amplifiers we used feedback to get good numbers for marketing (such are the demands of the real world). Low distortion, smooth frequency response, and high damping were the primary benefits. I had to unlearn this approach to make amps sound better. I had to break the bonds with test equipment and learn to trust the ear. As I own AAW I now don't have to respond to the desires of the Marketing Department.

    Feedback is about control, and sometimes control is the antithesis of real performance. Time for a reality check. We are here to listen and feel, not measure and control.

    Reality Check2.jpg

    The conflict starts with the idea of two gain loops, one open (without feedback) the other what happens when you feed some of the output back into the amplifier, the closed loop, and the definition of feedback.

    In my opinion feedback has its place inside processes that relate to passive loads such as is typified by a preamp and amp or inter-stage relationships. But feeding a transducer (something that changes one energy form into another such as a headphone or speaker) is a reactionary world commanding a dynamic one and is subject to translation errors. The dynamic nature of the output varies with load issues. The Black AMP's output is not reactionary, in this sense it is passive.

    A spin off of this thinking is the core of my new DAC, but that is another matter.

    What is of importance is that I cut the output impedance from 20 ohms to 10 ohms to test the idea that the storing of energy inside certain headphones at low frequencies below the resonance of the headphone system could be changed by reducing the impedance of the source driver, in this case the Black AMP.

    Does this alter the rest of the performance? No. The key to the sonics of the Black AMP resides in the way we get voltage gain to achieve power gain without feedback to control performance. Because transistors are effectively current devices (tubed are voltage) their intrinsic performance characteristics (gain current, phase, and bandwidth) are linear enough for the faithful amplification audio. So I used current-mode gain into a current-to-voltage converter along with current gain for the sake of current to get power gain (Watts = Volts times Amps), which is what a power amplifier is all about.
     
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  6. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils Best SBAF member of all time

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    Black Amp impressions

    unfortunately I received this loaner during a period of upheaval and re-adjusting of my auditory calibration and sense of balance and reference. So I had no reference headphones to use with this amp. So I’m going to keep my impressions short.

    BUILD

    I love the form factor if this amp, the simple but elegant looks, the power button sends a little rush of endorphins through me every time I turn it on or off. May sound silly but it’s just extremely satisfying and creative. My favorite on off switch of any amp ive ever used and just favorite buttons in general. It makes using the amp feel very nice. I’m not a fan of the volume knob used it’s kind of hard to use due to the weird shape I’d prefer a round black knob but I get the choice as it looks cool and it’s a classic knob. It’s buttery smooth. Changing the volume is literally a sexual experience.

    and my little feet I put on the amp that raise it up about a half inch make it look even better. I recommend the designer use tall feet like this too.

    SOUND

    if I had to use only one word to describe the sound of this amp it would be liquid. That said I don’t think it sounds that tubey. It sounds like a solid state amp without shitty tonality in fact good tonality. It is no fucking cold sterile flat Gilmore amp. Kevin Gilmore is shamed and publicly flogged by the tonality of this amp.

    I think people are confusing this liquid sound with tube characteristics. But the amp still has the slightly flat “too clean”, lack of depth and realism associated with solid state amps.

    Compared to my Cavalli SOHA1 (which is maxed out and sounds better than the sum of its parts so shouldn’t really be considered a SOHA1) the SOHA1 just sounds so much more natural to me. Gong back to the black amp I feel like it’s a solid state amp that is colored to try to sound like something it’s not. I think I’m comfortable saying I don’t like solid state amps at this point as I have similar feelings about my First Watt speaker amp. Just flat and lacking realism in dimensionality and tone. I think I prefer tube hybrids ala Cavalli amps.

    In the end the black amp has this liquid sound but if I switch to my SOHA1 it doesn’t have this but doesn’t need it either. So it winds up feeling like a coloration.

    but this probably comes across too harsh. It’s very enjoyable to listen to, I just can hear the amp.

    the Black amp is nicely resolving and has good soundstage but my SOHA1 bests it in every way ultimately.

    the bad:
    It lacks bass to my ears. My SOHA1 has always been my reference and I have verified it’s neutrality various times. The black amp just lacks bass and I never wanted to listen to it because of this. I think the designer needs to address this before the design is finalized.

    I felt it is overpriced for the sound but I’m sure the price is well thought out and I’m comparing it to an amp with insane price to performance ratio. So maybe not fair. But I would want to pay 400-500$ for this amp if the bass was better. But maybe I just don’t know solid state amps well enough to put an accurate value on it.

    I believe that’s it from me. I ultimately really enjoyed hearing this amp and the thought it was one of the better solid state amps I’ve heard except for the bass which on an amp like this should be neutral and slammmin.
     
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  7. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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  8. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils Best SBAF member of all time

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    All modded orthos. :)

    HE6se V2 and V1
    Audeze LCD-2 Classic
    T50rp mk3
     
  9. crenca

    crenca Friend

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    I agree with this though I get why folks think of tubes when they hear the liquidity of this amp. I thought it was pretty good with the stagehead thing and because of its clarity/resolve and SS transient speed it had even better perhaps then the Starlett with pure imaging/placement/seperation, but the Starlett in the end did have a bit more stage depth.

    edit: I with I had an decent ortho when I had the loaner as I do now, the above was with dynamics (HD6XX and Utopia)...
     
  10. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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    My HE6se V1 with a grill mod only sounds best out of a vintage Adcom speaker amp. Black Amp and Jot2 won't be used for those. Both have the power but the speaker amp just smooths the HP and makes the treble bearable.
    Orthos should be Zout immune, Verum 1 sounded fine and I clearly heard their resolution limits.
    Bass? Like most, I like da bass and found it deep and resolved, timbre was clear but ... the level may have been lower, VO and HD800s while being better resolved.
    I purchased a Black Amp, it may end up as my only HP amp, time will tell.
     
  11. crenca

    crenca Friend

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    I too am somewhat confused by the majority of reviewers description of the Black Amp's bass, even given how the amp's OI complicates the listening/review situation. It is almost as if everyone is A/B between it a Mjolnir or something ;)
     
  12. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils Best SBAF member of all time

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    Oh I should have mentioned I used SE in and SE out. My other amps are SE so to get balanced out of my Gungnir I’d have to add a second switcher into the path before the iso max and I’m just not interested in doing that.

    maybe that’s why I heard less bass than you @bilboda

    my experience it was way bass shy. Just a deal breaker even if I was sold on the rest which I wasn’t though again it’s a great solid state amp.

    I hear the artistry in the Black Amp for sure. This is an amp that was listened to and voiced, not just designed with THD measurements.
     
  13. zonto

    zonto Friend

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    I had the same impressions re: bass, and was using SE input. Tried both SE and XLR outputs, however. Sounds like this characteristic wasn’t fixed with the output impedance change.
     
  14. Erroneous

    Erroneous Friend

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    Black Amp was a little lean to me (balanced in and out), but still very enjoyable. Then again I was listening to it against the BHA-1 which is a slam cannon, and Jot 2 which just wasn't to my liking with the other upstream and downstream gear it was paired with.
    If Barry could add some slam and heft to this amp, I think there wouldn't be anything left to dislike about it.
     
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  15. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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    A simple bypass enabled transparent variable bass boost equalizer circuit with an appropriate cutoff applied at the hp output. Maybe as simple as reducing current above 80 -100hz marginally. Haven't got a real clue, maybe franz at g1217 could make a balanced khameleon for this? A passive xlr adapter on the output? And then there are equalizers available. My chain would use hqplayer for this. I'll dabble with it when my amp arrives.
     
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  16. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    I’ll be writing up impressions soonish, a death in the family took me out of town for a week and I’m still getting caught up.

    I did hear bass lightness but not as much as everyone describes. I wonder if y’all changed the impedance setting based on the headphones you were using? I believe this can impact bass. My listening was all balanced (input and headphones).

    I plan to get one because:
    • Super non fatiguing
    • Excellent clarity, separation, and tone
     
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  17. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    Black Amp Impressions

    A big question for me was do I want this amp to replace my Black Widow? I like the Widow but sometimes find it fatiguing. Yes, I do want to replace the Widow with the Black Amp. Worth noting, I'm probably overly susceptible to listening fatigue due to chronic sleep issues.

    All listening done with the following chain:
    FLAC, ALAC, and Qobuz via Pi2AES (MoOde or Volumio) -> Pavane L3 -> Freya S -> Black Amp / Black Widow / Stratus

    Stratus tubes: Brimar 6BQ7A, EML 5GUG Mesh Plate, Acme 2A3.

    Everything was XLR except Freya to Stratus.

    Broad Impressions
    My impressions are very similar to what others have said. I agree this amp is "light on it's feet", has superb clarity, excellent tone, superb separation, and is bass light. Based on other impressions, I think I enjoyed the separation and clarity more than average and didn't find the bass as light as others describe.

    I agree with rhythmdevils and crenca that the tone does not sound like tubes even though it is really good and not the expected SS sterile. Yes, tubes can (and in my comparison did) still sound really good. I want a secondary amp where I don't need to think about TEH BEST TUBEZ BRO. It's nice to have a good option where you just use it and stop giving a shit about tweaks.

    Some things that stood out which I didn't notice mentioned in other reviews:
    • Piano tone is really, really good, the weight and feel was just right
    • Bass has good extension despite being lighter
    • The Black Amp is very chill without being warm or rolled off in the treble. I need more chill in my life.
    • I found the previous point especially surprising because the treble is both extended and clear. I have never heard this without music getting "hot" sometimes. I think Barry used some black magic to keep this amp smooth with this treble.
    • The noise floor (I think that is the term) is excellent. I turned the volume all the way up and heard no noise whatsoever. Can't say the same for the Black Widow or Stratus.
    What really sold me on purchasing the Black Amp in the near future is the excellent tone, clarity, and separation coupled with fantastic smoothness. It's even smoother than the Stratus. The tone compares well with the Stratus and more of a flavor difference than worse. If I had to pick one, I would still pick the Stratus but would badly miss the Black Amp, especially on days where I need a super smooth amp.

    I tried the Autuer, Atticus, Elex, HD 800, and HD 6XX. I was pleased to see they all paired well with the Black Amp, I like a versatile amp. My 6se is in the hands of the devil for mods and I look forward to trying them together eventually. The picky headphones (Autuer, Elex, and HD 800) were either as lively as I like (Auteur and Elex) or good without being fatiguing/sharp (HD 800).

    Vs Black Widow
    • Widow has more slam
    • Black Amp clearer
    • Black Amp sometimes felt more properly "balanced". I don't think this was FR, probably more instrument separation and sound stage placement.
    • Black Amp usually came across as more detailed
    • Black Amp handled fast and busy passages better in classical music
    Songs I liked better with the Black Widow:
    • Christina Aguilera, Beautiful. I could hear more background detail with the Black Amp which didn't add anything enjoyable, just "stuff". I wouldn't say that is something against the Black Amp, it is doing it's job and showing me what is there. Her voice had more heft and was more featured with the Black Widow creating more emotional engagement. I mean, that voice is why you listen to Christina Aguilera.
    • Peter Tosh, Get Up Stand Up. The Black Widow's elevated bass and slam makes this song more fun. Still, it was close, the added detail and separation of the Black Amp was nice.
    Notable fun with the Black Amp:
    • Stevie Wonder, Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing. Fantastic piano and the detail and balance made this song come alive.
    • Stevie Wonder, As. I didn't realize this song can sound a bit muddy until I tried with the Black Amp and all mud and haze was gone. Also noticed some tizz with Another Star on the Black Widow which wasn't there at all on the Black Amp. Black Widow's slam was too much for me on both As and Another Star.
    • Stay All Night (live), Joan Shelley. I liked the more extended bass of the Black Amp and found the tone of her voice more "right".
    • Piano Concerto #2, Brahms. The clarity, blackground, and tone are great. Especially piano (as usual). Really good with faster and/or busier passages.
    I usually found the Black Amp more engaging than the Black Widow.

    Vs Stratus

    This comparison was shorter than the Black Widow, I was running out of time and felt the Black Widow was a more fair comparison due to the price point.

    The Stratus has more "meat on the bones", detail, and bass. Both have great speed and separation with a detailed, clear, non-fatiguing sound. The Black Amp edges out the Stratus on separation. With tone they are very good, more different flavors than better/worse. Black is smoother, more chill. Both are great for emotional engagement. I understand the tube comparison (and Stratus isn't super "tubey") but I think the tone and smoothness is different on each and I wouldn't label the Black Amp "tubey sounding".

    The "meat on bones" difference depends on music too. Didn't feel that as much with Seven Nation Army (The White Stripes) but did with As/Another Star (Stevie Wonder) and some Christina Aguilera. For female vocals I mostly prefer the Stratus. Not sure if it is "meat on bones", tone, or something else.

    The "meat on bones" differences stood out less with the Atticus.

    Misc
    • Totally agree this amp needs feet, I believe Barry said the production version will include them
    • While the case is super beat up, the case and finish both strike me as quality. I'm sure the Stratus could look just as beat up if treated improperly. I even managed to ding the finish on my Stratus because I'm a doofus (dropped a record weight).
    • I don't have strong pricing opinions. Really, the cost of most of my headphones and related chain are stupid expensive. I don't mean to say they are overcharging, for the small businesses and boutique shops I think economies of scale are a big factor. Purchasing from boutique places has other benefits including meeting them (forums and in-person meets) and an increased likelihood of more "heart" put into their products. The tuning of the Black Amp certainly came across as a labor of love.
    • The compact size and low weight are super convenient
     
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  18. BarryT

    BarryT MOT: Austin Audio Works

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    OK, so here is how I work. You know that I don't trust my personal impressions, to much ego, I have explained all that. I have also explained how I take your words and wonderfully diverse expressions and tie them the electronic circuits as part of a methodology to 'weigh' the interrelationships developed there in, a way of judging those circuits and thus changing them. I try to use the words as metaphysical measurements in a physical world.

    Time to educate the old man. A word I am having trouble with is "slam". I clearly do not understand it well enough yet to use it as a tool in this pantheon of mental stuff I call thinking. I have some vague ideas but that again is my ego so I won't burden you with them now.

    Educate me, please. Describe slam (I know it's like explaining the taste of chocolate or the like, but it is the only way I know to learn at a distance such as we have). Isn't sensuality fun?

    Thank you sincerely for taking a crack at it, Barry
     
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    Last edited: Apr 18, 2021
  19. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    I consider myself weak when it comes to audiophile vocabulary, listening to me comes with the risk that I am using a word inaccurately. :D

    When I say "slam", I am talking about the music having a visceral hit to it. It kinda hits you in the chest even though you're wearing headphones. I don't think I've heard classical have slam but it can do something similar which I would describe as "punch".
     
  20. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils Best SBAF member of all time

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    basically just means dynamic. That the bass notes have fast rise and fall in decay. Also that they hit hard instead of soft. If it was a square wave measurement of a headphone I believe “slam” would be a nice square shape whereas the opposite would be more of a flat top triangle. Fast and hitting with impact.
     

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